Monday, August 7, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Glorious victories
Turnbull may survive today’s marriage meeting, but survival is not enough


Tony Abbott, as usual, had a brilliant solution at the ready.

“The Howard government tried 40 times to change unfair dismissal laws in the Senate. We’ve put the plebiscite up once – that’s all,” he told Ray Hadley. “We should have another go and if that fails, let’s have another go.’’

You remember the unfair dismissal laws, right? The laws that John Howard did, eventually, manage to get through the Senate? That’s right, the ones that were central to WorkChoices. The very same unfair dismissal laws that did a good deal of the hard yakka in tearing down Howard’s government at the 2007 election.

This afternoon, the Liberal party room is meeting to discuss what it should do with same-sex marriage. There is likely to be a secret ballot. Abbott’s solution – endless attempts to get a silly, destructive and distracting policy across the line – is unlikely to be adopted, but a little part of it might be.

Most likely is a sequence of steps. First, one final attempt to get the plebiscite through the Senate (the small part of the Abbott solution). Once this fails, the delivery of a postal plebiscite. Once this is either rejected by the High Court – legal challenges have already been signalled – or carried out, a specific date [$] set for a free vote in the parliament.

There are other possibilities that lie between these. There remains a small chance that the privacy afforded by a secret ballot will see a mass uprising of common sense and the delivery of a free vote in the parliament on marriage. The party room might agree with the one-more-time plebiscite attempt, but reject a postal plebiscite as too silly for words. It may turn out that parliamentary approval is needed for a postal plebiscite, and that said approval is not forthcoming.

It is true, as a number of commentators have pointed out, that such a sequence provides a pathway to safety for the prime minister. The Senate attempt gives him cover with some conservatives. The postal plebiscite finds favour with his strongest backers, Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton. The specific date for a free vote provides political cover to the moderates who have been agitating for a parliamentary vote.

But this is starting from the negative side of things, and that is a problem. Yes, we all acknowledge, this is not the worst option for Turnbull. Perhaps he will manage not to get blown up on the way through. Golf claps all round.

But Turnbull will have missed an opportunity to show leadership. He will have missed an opportunity to convince the public he has guts by declaring that he believes in marriage equality and will make it happen as soon as possible.

I understand some will think this is implausibly risky. But the problem for Turnbull is that opportunities to show guts are running out. They’re running out partly because every fortnight he gets another Newspoll closer to oblivion – the 17th in a row came out today [$], showing the government still behind. But actually his chances are even more limited than the Newspoll count suggests.

There is no doubt that the public are not really paying much attention to Turnbull anymore. Focus groups conducted by Fairfax show a unity of opinion around the prime minister. He is a “big let down”. “He is talented, and he could have been, if he just had the guts, the political will.” “He had to pull so many levers when he took over from Abbott and now he can’t move.”

How many issues do you think there are on which Turnbull could decisively demonstrate that he is not beholden to his party? The obvious ones, and perhaps the only ones, are those on which he seems so compromised: same-sex marriage, climate change and the republic. If Turnbull doesn’t take the opportunity to lead on same-sex marriage, he is not only failing a moral test but also losing one of his last political chances. 

This should be especially motivating for Turnbull because these same polls and focus groups, overwhelmingly bad for him, also offer him a tiny ray of hope.

“He’s a brilliant man but he’s turning out to be an idiot because of the party behind him,” said one participant. Look at the first four words. There is a lingering belief in the electorate in Turnbull’s talents. It’s as if, two years into a disappointing prime ministership, they are still willing him to succeed, almost despite themselves.

Similarly, the remarkably consistent string of 53–47 results against the government are bad news for Turnbull. But, with the sense of rolling crisis and deep division in the Coalition, and positive announcements coming from Labor, why hasn’t Labor edged further ahead? The same focus groups show that voters don’t much like Shorten, either.

In other words, if Turnbull could bring himself to stare down his party – properly, not with half-measures – there are some grounds for recovery. But there are few signs, so far, that he will be willing to do so. Instead, voters will be reminded of his failure to lead: once when the plebiscite comes to the Senate, then with any court challenge to a postal plebiscite, and perhaps then when the postal plebiscite itself occurs.

Turnbull may manage to tiptoe through another battlefield packed with landmines. Survival is important. But in politics you need the occasional glorious victory, too.  

In other news


Back to where I came from

A trip to Iran brings a senator face to face with the life that could have been

Sam Dastyari

“There are moments in life that define you. For me it will always be getting off the plane in Australia. My story, every time, starts with how I came to Australia with ‘a small sum of money and a suitcase full of dreams’. That isn’t the whole story. It never is for any migrant. There is always a story before that. A story of a house in a street. A family. Fear. Love.”  READ ON


Bad sports

What is Foxtel doing with $30 million of taxpayers’ money?

Mungo MacCallum

“It was a week that featured the same-sex marriage imbroglio, the NBN disaster, the water-rorting in the Murray-Darling Basin endorsed by Barnaby Joyce, and now the accusations about Commonwealth Bank turning a blind eye to money-laundering for terrorists. Inevitably a scandal over $30 million of taxpayers’ money to Foxtel tended to get lost in the rush.”  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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